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Aimbridge’s Dave Johnson Talks Management Strategy

johnsonthumbWhen Dave Johnson co-founded Aimbridge Hospitality with Les Bentley, another former Wyndham executive, the firm had eight assets and about 1,000 rooms under management. Ten years later, the company now boasts 193 hotels with 27,000 rooms and has had compounded annual growth north of 25 percent for eight consecutive years. About a year ago, Aimbridge created a wholly owned and operated subsidiary, Channel Point Hospitality, to manage a portfolio of 103 hotels formerly known as Jameson Inns. It was the largest multiunit conversion to ever take place in a single transaction, and Aimbridge has reflagged the hotels as Wyndham and Choice economy brands.

LODGING: Can you take me behind the Jameson deal?

JOHNSON: To assume management and rebrand 103 assets in roughly 60 days is a pretty herculean effort. We reflagged them with Wyndham flags, primarily Baymont Inns and Suites, and then also Quality Inns and Comforts with Choice. We’re a minority investor alongside our partner, Colony Capital. This year, we spent roughly $25 million on capital expenditures—everything from new signage and new systems to a lot of exterior work. Some hotels got new soft goods and some got makeovers in their public and breakfast areas.
LODGING: You wanted to gain a footing in the economy segment?

JOHNSON: We looked at it as a parallel business opportunity, but strategically we didn’t want to move into that space unless we could do it in a big way. You need a little bit more scale in a segment like that to really be profitable. It’s a different business than operating full- and select-service hotels. You’re in a lot of small communities that have two or three employers that really drive the business.

LODGING: Your company manages such a wide-ranging portfolio—everything from Howard Johnsons to Caribbean resorts. What’s the trick to managing all these properties well?

JOHNSON: I think it comes down to basics. We want to operate clean and friendly hotels. We ask our employees to take care of hundreds of thousands of customers a year, and the reality is we need to take care of our employees. A wise mentor of mine told me at a very young age that your back-of-the-house in hotels should be as clean and organized as you expect the front-of-house to be, because it’s the first impression you make on your employees.

LODGING: We recently toured the renovated Embassy Suites Dallas Market Center and the new look was impressive. How does Aimbridge plan to build off this project?

JOHNSON: If you walk into Dallas Market Center today, you would swear it was a newly built hotel. We basically took a 25- to 30-year-old asset and redeveloped it—to call it a renovation is probably an understatement. That doesn’t come cheap. We spent $7.5 million on the hotel, but our RevPAR is up 40 percent year-over-year. Now we’re currently under construction in New Orleans and Nashville on makeovers, and we just closed on Embassies in Baton Rouge, La., and Jacksonville, Fla., where we’re going to do the same thing.

LODGING: What will drive Aimbridge’s future growth?

JOHNSON: We’re putting a lot of emphasis on growing the resort division, and I think we’ll be able to land and announce properties by the end of the year in Aruba and Bermuda. We’re also very close to launching a Mexican and Latin America region. We have an opportunity down there not only on the resort side but also in the urban business hotel market. We see a real opportunity there I think we’re going to commit some capital to and give it a go like we did in the resort business.

LODGING: You progressed from a Wyndham Garden sales manager to president of Wyndham Hotels. Why did you leave the company after 17 years?

JOHNSON: In early 2000, Wyndham became a different company and it required an equity infusion. I stayed on for a while with the new leadership, but private equity in a company that size wasn’t for me. So what did I do? I went out and started my own company with a partner, and now I have private equities on my partners. The only difference is, I’m in charge.

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